Fourteen Turkish soldiers were killed and 33 wounded in clashes with Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Syria on Wednesday in the military’s highest single day toll of its four month campaign inside the country.
The fighting came as Turkey and allied pro-Ankara Syria rebels faced increasing resistance from the extremists in a battle to take a key town IS-held town of Al Bab, 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the Turkish border.
The toll, the heaviest single day loss for the Turkish army in its Syria operation that started in August, came in fighting with jihadists that included three suicide car bomb attacks, the army said in a statement quoted by Turkish media.
Four soldiers were killed in attacks earlier in the day, the army had previously announced. The other 10 were killed later Wednesday.
Six of the 33 wounded were said to be in a serious condition.
The fierce fighting erupted as Turkish officials said the army was entering into a key phase in the fight for Al Bab.
The town has become the main target of the army’s campaign inside Syria, in support of the pro-Ankara Syrian rebels opposed both to the jihadists and President Bashar al-Assad, that started on August 24.
The army said the clashes erupted around a weapons depot that had been used by IS for the last two years.
It said that 138 IS jihadists were killed in the fighting. The army’s toll for the extremists could not be verified independently.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged there had been “martyrs” in the fighting, at an earlier news conference before the toll was announced, but expressed confidence that Al Bab would be taken from IS.
“Al Bab has been completely besieged by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and our soldiers,” he said.
He expressed hope that the town “would fall entirely sooner or later”.
IS claimed on jihadist forums to have killed or injured at least 70 Turkish soldiers in three suicide bombings carried out by IS fighters and in fighting on the ground.
They also said the casualties and losses of the Turkish army were the highest since the intervention in northern syria started.
The Turkish air force meanwhile struck 47 IS targets around Al Bab, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.
After the lightning speed of the earlier campaign, which saw the border town of Jarabulus taken on the first day of the offensive, the Turkish army has suffered increasing casualties in the fight for Al Bab.
Around three dozen Turkish soldiers are believed to have lost their lives since Ankara launched its operation Euphrates Shield in August, with most of the deaths blamed on IS attacks.